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San Diego Unified mask policy discriminates against students with disabilities, critics say

Cadman Coller, 5, who has an intellectual disability and autism, does a distance learning session with his sister Emma.
Cadman Coller, 5, who has an intellectual disability and autism, does a distance learning session in the spring with his 3-year-old sister Emma at their family’s dining table. Cadman’s mother, Erin Coller, wants him to go to school because he learns better in person, but he doesn’t tolerate wearing a mask, she said.
(Erin Coller)

The district is not allowing students on campus without a mask in order to help prevent coronavirus transmission, even if students have a disability or medical condition that prevents mask-wearing.

Erin Coller’s 5-year-old son, who has an intellectual disability and autism, is not allowed to go to school because he can’t wear a mask.

Cadman has sensory defensiveness, which means he is hypersensitive and overreacts to certain stimuli. He especially doesn’t tolerate anything on his head or face, not even a hat, and he rips off masks in seconds, Coller said.

Cadman’s school, Hawthorne Elementary in the San Diego Unified School District, has invited him to go to school to work with a teacher for up to 30 minutes a week. It’s part of the district’s Phase 1 of reopening from coronavirus-related campus closures; so far about 3,000 students have been provided with in-person support sessions.

But Cadman’s teacher and principal told Coller that he can’t go indoors if he won’t wear a mask — no exceptions, Coller said. Instead, there could be a socially distanced greeting in the parking lot, Coller said she was told.

Coller said she is desperate for Cadman to get in-person instruction because he is learning little to nothing through distance learning at home and is failing to meet the academic goals in his special-education plan. Coller said she feels frustrated and helpless.

“The lack of flexibility from the school district is making a challenging situation even more difficult,” she said.

San Diego Unified’s mask policy, which does not provide in-person learning accommodations for students who are unable to wear a face covering, is raising alarm among some parents and attorneys who believe the policy may violate federal laws that outline rights for people with disabilities.

“It’s blatant discrimination,” said Gabriela Torres, senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Disability Rights California, who said she has received two dozen calls and emails from families recently about the mask issue.

San Diego Unified officials say their strict universal mask policy is based on guidance they received from UC San Diego health and science experts and is crucial for preventing transmission of COVID-19.

The district is not allowing anyone without a face covering onto school campuses — although county guidance says students who are medically exempt from wearing a face covering cannot legally be excluded from campus.

State public health guidelines specifically provide mask exemptions for people with a disability, mental health conditions or medical conditions that prevent mask-wearing.

For example, some people may have a facial deformity that prevents wearing a mask. In certain cases, people could suffocate or choke if they wore a mask.

For others with sensory issues, like Cadman, wearing a mask has an emotional or psychological impact, and they don’t tolerate it.

Schools are supposed to accommodate students with disabilities if they can’t wear a mask, county officials say. And students with disabilities cannot automatically be excluded from school if they can’t wear a mask, according to legal counsel with the San Diego County Office of Education.

“The school has to find other solutions to address contact concerns,” county office spokeswoman Music Watson said in an email.

For example, county officials suggest that schools work with a student’s parents to use a mask alternative, such as a face shield with a drape or a plexiglass barrier between the student and teacher. If a student can’t wear any kind of face covering, the teacher is advised to wear a face shield and mask or an N95 mask.

Not wearing a mask indoors significantly increases the risk of COVID-19 spread, according to Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician who is a consultant for schools in the area, including San Diego Unified.

Taras sees the mask dilemma as a situation of opposing rights: the right of children to attend school safely and the right of children who can’t wear a mask to be in school.

“My struggle as a doctor and what I am working on is to be able to satisfy both of those rights,” he said.

For students who can’t wear a mask due to disability, San Diego Unified is looking at having them wear other face coverings that are farther from the face, Sarah Ott, district special-education executive director, said at a meeting last week of the Community Advisory Committee that advises the district on special education.

The bottom line is, students have to wear some kind of face covering so the air they breathe out goes through a cloth, Taras said.

When a parent asked district officials to confirm that San Diego Unified is not offering accommodations for students who can’t wear a face covering, Ott replied, “The accommodation is online learning.”

Torres and Moira Allbritton, an executive member of the Community Advisory Committee, said online learning is not appropriate education or accommodation for many students with disabilities.

“It’s so offensive, especially for our students with moderate to severe disabilities who are just gaining next to nothing,” Allbritton said in an interview. “I think some families could make the case that [online learning] is actually harming their children.”

Cadman is still struggling with distance learning. He doesn’t sit at the computer unless somebody is constantly watching him and giving him tokens for accomplishments such as making eye contact with the screen, Coller said.

Coller has to keep the computer away from Cadman so he can’t close or throw it, she said, and she feeds him meals during distance learning sessions, which helps him stay seated longer.

According to federal education law, special-education plans must be tailored to meet a student’s specific needs, and schools must revise those plans if students fail to make expected progress.

Depending on the student, state guidance says schools may need to serve students with disabilities in person for the sake of their mental or physical health and to help them access distance learning.

Taras said he recommends that San Diego Unified teach students who can’t wear masks in outdoor classrooms with physical distancing, because the risk of transmission is lower outside than indoors. It’s unclear how much San Diego schools will use outdoor classrooms when they reopen in Phase 2, which is planned for January.

The earliest all elementary school students could return to campuses is Jan. 4. For middle and high school students, it’s Jan. 25.

In the meantime, Taras said, parents can and should be teaching their children how to tolerate masks, gradually increasing the time they wear them. Because the pandemic could be around for the next two years or so, Taras said, mask-wearing is as essential as other life skills that parents teach their children with developmental disabilities, such as fastening buttons.

“We want them to have that skill ... because we want them to have richer lives also, and not just in school,” Taras said.


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